Making the Pottery
It is still common to see ox carts carrying clay in burlap sacks from the fields into the town of San Juan de Oriente. Once the clay arrives at a workshop the bags are emptied into a hole and water added to soften it. Usually the clay is workable after a day of "soaking" and at this point sand is added. Then, to soften and blend clay, it is placed on top of the empty sacks and stomped on. This can take hours. Once sufficiently pliable, the clay is "wedged" into handful size chunks so that rocks and roots can be cleaned out. Following this stage, the clay is once more stomped by foot, which can take one person up to two days before the clay is ready to place on the potter's wheel.
After the pieces have been molded or "thrown" on the wheel the outer surface is burnished to detect any small stones or roots that are still in the clay. The burnishing process calls for a hard, flat instrument, so usually stones found at the beach are used for this purpose. Once such imperfections are removed, the surface of the pot is burnished again.
The pots are then smoothed by hand and black, liquid clay (called slip, which comes from El Sauce near Leon in Northern Nicaragua) is painted onto the pot. Known locally as engove (engobe), it is mixed with water and strained repeatedly over a period of days, resulting in very fine and soft black clay. Some artisans say that the clay softens hands and makes an excellent facemask. Various layers of black clay are applied to each piece. The pieces are then put into bags to dry for up to seven days (depending on the season) and burnished yet again. The ensuing layer is a bone white oxide of zinc called oxido. The white tint provides a base for further application of color. Each piece is again placed in a bag to dry, which can take anywhere from an hour or two in dry season to half a day in the rainy season. Once dry, the pots are burnished a final time.
The designs are made using colored oxides and applied with paintbrushes made from wood or, commonly, the recycled plastic shell of a ballpoint pen and hair left over from a child's haircut. Depending on the intricacy of the design, the painting can take hours, each applied color undergoing still another hand polishing process. When all the painting is complete, the pot is set out in the open air and can take anywhere from two days to a week to dry.
The outlines of the design are often carved, defined in a relief style by using a sharp instrument to delicately pick off only the top-most layer of clay, intentionally leaving the rough surface exposed. This tool can be made from the spokes of a bicycle wheel or the spines of a broken umbrella that have been sharpened by a stone.
Finishing the pot requires baking it and, many artists have constructed their own kilns out of adobe bricks and other local materials to create a basic, wood-burning oven in the traditional bee hive configuration. The process of "firing" the pots begins with two hours of low heat, followed by three hours of gradual increases in temperature. Once the maximum temperature is reached, it is maintained for an additional three to four hours, for a total firing time of about nine hours. After the kiln has cooled - usually a whole day later - the pots are removed and shined with a soft cloth.